First line: "Dixie Clay was squelching through the mud along the creek's swollen banks, shooing mosquitoes with her hat, when she saw a baby coffin bobbing against a sycamore snag."
The cover copy of my ARC reads, "This is the story of a bootlegger and a federal agent—natural enemies who fall in love." I think that's the best summation of a book I've read on a book jacket in a very long time.
Dixie Clay never set out to be a bootlegger. She thought she was marrying a fur trader, a kind and upstanding man. Jesse had other ideas. Dixie Clay didn't see the signs at first and before her baby died, she didn't care to see them. But once Jake left her, she had nothing. So she started manning the still and making the best moonshine around. That is until Ham and Ingersoll rode into town to secretly investigate the disappearance of two federal revenuers.
Ham and Ingersoll had encountered a robbery turned blood bath on their way to Hobnob Landing; the only survivor of the incident a newborn. So Ingersoll bundled up the infant to find it a home. The home turned out to be Dixie Clay's, but Ingersoll had no idea she was the wife of the man Ham had started investigating.
In the midst of all this chaos, add punishing rains that were flooding the Mississippi River and pushing the levees to their brink. The Tilted World is an incredibly complex novel of the rural South in 1927.
As I learned in Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, Tom Franklin is a master of atmosphere. The Tilted World only reinforces that knowledge. The sights and sounds of southern United States during Prohibition come alive; readers can almost feel the pervading damp and taste the moonshine. While the laid-back mentality of the region comes through, so does the intensity of anxiety people were experiencing with the levees threatening to burst at any point.
The plot is a melting pot of crime, mystery, romance, adventure and history, written with poetic beauty and impact:
"The gun was like his guitar: a thing that had power because of the hole in the middle. Maybe like Ingersoll, too, for that matter."
And what strengthens the plot even further is the cast of the story. Readers can't help but care what happens to them, whether for the good or bad. Each character is so exquisitely flushed out that strong emotion is unavoidable.
For several days The Tilted World carried me away to a different time and place. It enveloped me in a period forgotten in our history books and a fictional story so authentic I felt a part of it. The Tilted World is without a doubt one of the best books I've read in 2013.
The Tilted World is available in hardcover (ISBN: 978-0062069184) from William Morrow and as a Harper Audio unabridged audiobook (ISBN: 978-0062190628), narrated by Brian D'Arcy James. If you didn't have a chance to see it on Friday, do check out Tom's Five on Friday.